The annual upgrades to Parallels Desktop are normally fairly straightforward, with few challenges to its status as the leading virtualisation tool for Mac users who want to run Windows on their Mac (there are only occasional signs of life from VMWare's rival Fusion). But this year brings a new challenge, in the form of Microsoft, which has just launched Windows 365, a service that effectively runs Windows as a kind of 'virtual PC' in the cloud.
But, no doubt to Parallels' relief, Windows 365 currently seems to be focused on larger business and enterprise users, and its monthly subscription fees also make it considerably more expensive than Parallels Desktop. Even so, Parallels clearly has some new competition to contend with, so it's important that the 2021 upgrade continues to earn its keep.
There are big changes coming on both the Mac and Windows sides of the fence, so Parallels Desktop 17 is now a 'universal' app that runs natively on Macs with both Intel chips and Apple's own M1 processors. It's also been extensively tested with the beta versions of the forthcoming Windows 11 and MacOS Monterey, to ensure compatibility -- or at least a swift update -- when the final versions are released later this year. If you don't want to risk running Monterey as the primary OS on your Mac, you can also run it as a 'guest' in a virtual machine if you prefer.
Some Parallels users have also raised questions about Windows 11's use of TPM 2.0, but Parallels points out that a 'virtual TPM chip' was already available in previous versions, and this has now been updated to support Windows 11.
Good performance is essential when running Windows, or any other OS, as a virtual machine (VM) on your Mac, and Parallels claims that Parallels Desktop 17 includes a new display driver that improves performance for 2D graphics by up to 25%. Interestingly, M1 and Intel Macs show improvements in different areas, with M1 Macs improving performance for VMs running Windows 10 on ARM by around 30%, while VMs on Intel Macs benefit from faster network connections. There are also improvements with 3D graphics using OpenGL, although Parallels told us that it's difficult to provide precise figures here as this can vary greatly from one application to another.
A new Resource Manager feature monitors the use of your virtual machines, and can automatically allocate resources -- such as memory and processor cores from the host Mac -- in order to optimise performance. It's now easier to monitor and manage the disk space used by your VMs as well, including saved 'snapshots' (which I know from my own experience can get a bit out of hand at times). There's also smoother integration between the Mac 'host' and Windows 'guest' VM, with improved copy and paste for text and graphics between Windows and Mac apps, including support for Monterey's new Quick Note feature.
As always, Parallels Desktop is available in three editions -- Standard, Business and Pro. All these features are available in the Standard Edition, for individual, small business and education users, which requires an annual subscription of £58.33 (ex. VAT; £69.99 inc. VAT) or $79.99. That subscription includes all future upgrades, but it's also possible to buy the Standard Edition as a single-purchase 'perpetual license' for £66.66 (ex. VAT; £79.99 inc. VAT) or $99.99 -- with additional charges for future upgrades.
The Pro Edition, aimed at developers, gains a Microsoft Visual Studio plug-in for M1 Macs in this upgrade, along with improved options for managing multiple 'cloned' VMs. The Business Edition, for enterprise users, now allows users to roll out pre-configured VMs to both Intel and M1 Macs across an organisation. The Business and Pro Editions are only available with an annual subscription, each costing £66.66 (ex. VAT; £79.99 inc. VAT) or $99.99. Those prices are considerably cheaper than Windows 365, which starts at £20.50 (ex. VAT; £24.60 inc. VAT) or $24 per month for even its most basic cloud PC specification. Parallels also points out that its users do not require always-on, high-speed internet access, which is not the case for Windows 365 users.
The ability to stream a fully-featured Windows PC straight from the cloud does represent a potential threat to traditional virtualisation tools such as Parallels Desktop and VMWare Fusion. But, for the time being at least, Parallels' lower pricing and the performance improvements in this upgrade should ensure that Parallels Desktop hangs onto its crown for at least another year.
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